When people start a business, one of the common questions people get asked is – what’s your business plan, what will make you different? One answer I’ve personally heard (and given) is ‘well, I’m going to be better than the competition’.
That’s great…but it’s one thing to say you’re going to be better and something else to actually be better. We all know talking the talk is only 1% of the deal, the proof is in delivering on your words.
However, I’m guilty of saying the same thing. I’ve started 3 business now and each one has been backed by the same mantra of being better than my competition – why would you start something to be on a par with, or worse than your competition? Just doesn’t make any sense. So today we are going to look at what you can do to be better in both an online of offline business.
I’m going to look back and talk you through some of the things that I’ve implemented in my businesses, drummed into my team and why I think the most important and easiest way you can be better is all in the customer service.
Having been serving customers since the age of 15, I’ve come to learn a few things about customer service, and how the little things go a long way to being one of your biggest assets in keeping customers coming back to you.
What do you think of when someone says customer service? Is it of people in uniforms in a café or restaurant greeting you with a smile, making sure everything is ok and serving you promptly? Or is it the whole package, the service, the quality of your product, the price? For me, customer service is about the whole experience, it’s great to greet people with a smile and be pleasant and polite, but if what you sell or serve is rubbish then a nice smile won’t get you anywhere and won’t keep you in business for long.
Let’s say you want to open a new coffee shop in town, there are 3 others already around you (probably all Costa’s) – what do you do to be ‘the best’. With all business, you’ve got one chance to impress and that is the first time the customer comes to you. First thing is to look at each of the other shops, see what they are doing well, not so well, and how you can improve. Before opening I would spend time in each of the other shops and just watch everything going on, even asking a few people once they have left what the shop could improve on is a great way to quickly understand what people want or are not satisfied with currently. From here you need to assess what you can do better, is it that those coffee shops don’t have a toilet, small range of cakes, not enough seats, slow service… find their weakness and capitalise on that. When you set out to be the best, identify precisely how you can be better.
If starting an e-commerce business, what is it that your competitors seem to fall down on? Is it updating customers on their delivery, are they hard to get in touch with, do their listings not provide enough detail or description? Look at how they present themselves online and work out how you can be better. For us, our aim is to be the best online blind retailer by being the simplest and offering the best customer service.
When I opened my greengrocers, I researched the local competition; what was on offer, what people were missing and how I could capture my share of the local market. Being only 6 shops away from a large Co-Op meant that I couldn’t compete on price or convenience, but I could compete on freshness, customer service, the speed of service, offering a personal service by getting to know customers by name, and offering the flexibility that a supermarket can’t.
These little touches helped me establish myself in the local community and helped the business grow. When it came to taking on my first employee it was key that they understood that welcoming everyone into the shop, a little bit of small talk, and in-depth knowledge about the produce was key. Customers could come to us and ask how to cook and prepare certain fruits or veg, for example, celeriac’s. This was another little touch that the Co-Op couldn’t match. Customers would ask how many miles the produce had travelled and what farm the Cauliflowers came from, the Co-Op couldn’t tell them. Work out your advantage and then go all in on it, so for us, it was exceptional product knowledge, personal customer service and getting to know our customers better than anyone else.
With MakeMyBlinds.co.uk, we overcome the contact issue by having a web chat app so customers can message us rather than call, email updates at every stage as their blind is being made, and we even call customers back who have ordered samples to check they were all ok. These are just little things that no-one else is doing. They don’t cost anything more to do but leaves a lasting impression with the customer. We continuously check on our competitors Facebook, Trust Pilot and Twitter, along with ordering from them personally, to see what issues people have had before and how we can prevent them being an issue between us and our customers in the future. Learn from others mistakes to avoid ever making them yourselves.
In my opinion, it’s easy to be the best when you care about the customers and are actively working in your business. You have direct control and influence on the customer service because it comes from you, but as time goes on and the business grows – you can’t be the one behind the till interacting with the customers all the time because you’re a busy person. This is why it is so important to have systems in place and to choose the right hires for the roles. Don’t, under any circumstances employ someone who doesn’t enjoy talking to customers to be the cashier. It’ll just go wrong – trust me.
My 2nd business was a frozen yoghurt shop called AngelBerry, we grew to 18 stores franchised across the UK, South Africa, Mauritius and the UAE. What I learnt here is your systems and staff training will make or break you. If you are a multi-unit operator or have a few businesses then you know you can’t be everywhere at once, so how do you go above and beyond your competition? Well, the good news is if you’re opening a 2nd branch then you must be doing something right in the first place to be able to keep growing. So, long before opening the 2nd location, you need to write down everything that you do to keep customers happy and the level of service you expect things to be maintained too. Creating a customer service bible enabled me to pass on my exact requirements to the store manager who was then in charge of training all new starters. By writing everything down and creating a training plan enabled me to fully trust what was being implemented, regardless where in the world the store was.
To make sure that standards were maintained we would organise for mystery shoppers to go in with a pre-determined list of things to inspect and ask to make sure the outcome was correct. For example one of the tests was to return a milkshake that was bought and say that they didn’t like the taste. Our team were trained to offer a replacement free of charge, and give them extra stamps on their loyalty card for the inconvenience. This goes one step beyond what our competitors would do in the same situation (mostly just said ‘sorry, but there is nothing we can do’). Being the one to go above and beyond what the customer was expecting also leads to more referrals, better customer satisfaction and hopefully left you with a raving fan rather than someone who will leave happy, but won’t shout about their experience.
With MakeMyBlinds, I still have some direct contact with customers whilst we grow, but plans and systems are in place to make sure that as the team grows issues do not crop up and our customer service is maintained. Simple things like reviewing webchats or phone calls, weekly training and improvements to our website all help to prevent issues occurring again – along with a diligent eye on the competition. It’s ok for a mistake to happen once, as long as you learn from it and don’t let it ever happen again. Even apologising for something that wasn’t directly your fault, like sending the customer a box of chocolates for a late delivery, helps to cement your values and leaves the customer with a positive memory of your company rather than a negative one.
Once you’ve found your leverage over the competition, implemented it and found ways to ensure this remains the standard once you are working on your business rather than in it, you still can’t sit back and relax.
The only way to stay ahead is through continuous improvement, at no point can you sit back and relax. So for us, we are always looking at how we can make ordering easier and less confusing, working with our manufacturer to improve the turnaround time of the blinds and constantly reviewing our internal systems, to become the very best online.
James has founded several businesses in Bristol, from his greengrocers at 18, through to his new e-commerce business at 25. Always on the lookout for new ideas, ways to get ahead in the market and establish his brand in whatever area he goes into, James has recently exited his international Frozen Yoghurt chain, AngelBerry, which he grew to 18 franchised stores across the UK, South Africa, Mauritius and the UAE.@James_jtaylor